Welcome aboard! Photo: Kristin Atkinson
Your first time is something you’ll always remember. Maybe it was with the love of your life or you were even with your parents or had a close family member nearby. You may be nervous, not fully knowing what to do. Feelings of excitement, joy and even some bumps up and down happened. But a helpful hand guides you through a very exciting ride and you end up with a great touchdown.
Yes, that first time you ever fly in an airplane is pure joy and everlasting.
Yet for some, the thought of going through a crowded airport, getting into a pressurized tube with wings flown by a total stranger at speeds exceeding 500 mph, thousands of feet in the air, can be terrifying.
Thankfully there are programs at many airports to help nervous travelers.
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport
Recently, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) hosted its 7th annual “Wings for Autism” event that welcomed families. The event was so popular, registration filled up in the first half an hour it opened online. More than 300 families and 1,000 people have taken part in the program during its seven year run in Seattle.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports about one in 68 children has some form of autism spectrum disorder. The number could be even higher, according to parent surveys done by autism awareness groups.
For the past two years, I had the pleasure of working alongside event planners and gained a firsthand perspective at everything that goes into making this event so meaningful for families. Trust me, these folks don’t miss anything – their dedication is truly amazing.
Sea-Tac Airport Customer Service Manager Sue Hansen-Smith leads the efforts on behalf of the airport. Sue volunteers her time, attending weekly planning meetings with event co-sponsors Alaska Airlines and the The Arc of King County. The team goes over everything from invitations, balloons, welcome gifts, volunteer totals, to the big stuff like airplane, gate and crew availability. It is truly amazing everything that goes into an event that happens once a year for a few hours.
All smiles during “Wings for Autism” Photo: Kristin Atkinson
“Along with 55 event volunteers, Alaska Airlines, TSA and Port of Seattle staff worked the event,” said Wings for Autism Program Manager Stacia Irons. “Many have a connection to autism, or actually have autism and have volunteered at the event to assist others navigate the experience. We have volunteers who have been there at all 7 events and cannot wait until the next one.”
Alaska Airlines plays a major role in the event, donating time with a 737-900, along with flight crew and gate space. The airline has a position dedicated to customer advocacy and accessibility. Simply put: Alaska knows it has a responsibility to serve all passengers, from the million-mile business traveler to first-timers who may have special needs.
Volunteer teams work Sea-Tac’s ticketing counter, and a dedicated TSA security checkpoint for families and the gate area. They guide families through every step of the process, showing autistic children that while sometimes hectic, an airport and airplane ride can be a welcoming and sometimes exciting experience.
“We are pleased to work with Wings for Autism to educate and empower this special group of travelers with the airport experience and the security checkpoint process,” said Jeff Holmgren, TSA Federal Security Director for Washington. “In addition to the benefit to families, TSA officers learn how to be more responsive to the needs of these travelers without compromising our security mission.”
The exciting part of the day comes as the plane pulls out and taxies around the airfield. A packed 737-900 with a volunteer crew make the 20-minute trip smooth. While the plane doesn’t actually take off, this dress rehearsal is huge for so many kids and families.
A happy “Wings” family, Photo: Kristin Atkinson
“As a parent of a child on the spectrum, my involvement with Wings gives me hope,” Irons said. “It is wonderful watching inclusion unfold as others gain knowledge and understanding of autism while families gain confidence in travel. Wings makes the world a better place for all.”
Wings for Autism is part of a nationwide initiative, developed by of The Arc of the US: in over 45 airports, with 13 airlines and serving over 13,000 people to date nationwide.